Ancient Magic and Future Mars on Marijuana

"Inaugural Exhibition" featuring Nina Bovasso, Krisjanis Kaktins-Gorsline, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Winnie Truong, and Bruce Wilhelm
Mulherin + Pollard, 187 Chrystie Street, New York, May 20-June 11, 2011
Here follows the first contribution by burgeoning art writer Elize Hendler to The Art Stomp; Hendler has worked as a painter and photographer, and now turns her hand to writing. Her style is personal, nearly diaristic, and crackles with bon-mots. I like to encourage everyone to try their hand at writing, as it can reveal some very interesting confrontations between what we think about art, as both an aesthetic force and in its review, as a sequence of linguistic encounters. Her assignment was to cover the recent inaugural exhibition at Mulherin Pollard, a gallery which, following a happy new trend, first opened in Chelsea and then departed to the Lower East Side. Hendler focuses on those aspects of visiting the gallery which most affected her: the sensory reflections of the art in its space of installation, and the witnessing of other people’s interactions with it as proof of its power. She also adds a strong art historical narrative to her review, showing us images that reference her frame of mind and, where she feels we should be looking to accrue knowledge of these promising artists.

Detail of "To Drown a Rose" by Sojourner-Truth Parsons

Gallery Installation view 1


Sojourner Truth Parsons’ (b. 1984) work at the latest exhibit at Mulherin + Pollard asks us to consider “witchcraft, a desire for ‘the other’, and a familiar yet out of reach sense of ritual” as noted in the gallery statement on the artist's work. At the inaugural exhibition of Mulherin + Pollard at their gallery space which sits just below street level, Parsons presents her latest work, “To Drown a Rose.” The piece is an installed work across two walls of the gallery space. Small figures are constructed from scraps of paper, hair, paint and string. Each small work (about 3 inches x 9 inches each) represents animal, human, or hybrid creatures with mythic qualities. The paper-creations are equal parts cryptic and voodoo as they pose along the white wall.
Parsons makes dark references to the personal relationship to anima and our connection to the long history of humanity's search for self-representation. The crowd of paper doll images parade across the gallery wall – each with various African, Egyptian, Native American and paleolithic inspired roots apparent in their characters' appearance, apparel, tools or postures. The individuals have perhaps benign or menacing intentions. Individual creatures hold hands with others, some hang from ropes held by others, creatures meld heads, dance and sway. When the gallery doors opened in the sweltering heat of the summer day the artworks seemed to dance along the wall, each hung on heavy black nails. In the center of the work, animals such as leopards or lions appear. Birds with eagle connotations and other hybrid animal/creatures stalk amongst the human-like, even shamanic, silhouettes.

Detail of "To Drown a Rose"

The works are priced individually at an affordable several hundred dollars, and they are a great sell in the recession economy. The work can also be bought as a larger group. A collector was purchasing a few figures when I was at the gallery. She was in raptures about how a “few, alone on the wall – gorgeous!” This comment struck me, and I must admit that it affected my reverie while viewing the work. The art is whimsical and certainly appealing, but the collector's comment asked me to question whether these works have a purpose beyond a sort of a tenebrous bed time story for a mature audience.

Gallery view 2

Mesopotamian art 6000-1500BC

Parsons’ work taps into the collective consciousness of humanity's earliest times. It also refers, perhaps unknowingly, to the extensive work of feminist artists and researchers well known from the 50s to the present times. Archeological evidence of the female form is referenced in her work, as well as questions of human identity. I was struck by how closely Parson’s figures resembles that of Karen Vogel’s illustrations from the 1970’s, for example. Vogel’s work, while popularized in the Mother Peace tarot deck, is based on these feminist, spiritual, and archetypal images that pull from art historical and archeological references throughout the eras.

Karen Vogel above from 1970s-80s

The Queen of the Night, 4th century AD Mesopotamian Art

Detail of Winged Figure, "To Drown a Rose"

Early Minoan Art

The work "To Drown a Rose" organizes each figure across the wall in a linear pattern similar to compositional structures in the ancient art of Mesopotamia. (See image below.) This pattern is also evident in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Many of Parsons' creations refer to archetypes from times past – winged figures similar to her work were prevalent in ancient Assyria, Turkey, and Greece. The artist relies on animal iconography that draws from a wide range of cultures and histories from Africa to the Northern Americas.

Gallery Installation view 3

Mesopotamia 6000-1500 BC (Images of Ancient art in this post,
courtesy of the British Museum)

The piece "To Drown a Rose" reveals the effort inherent in the artist’s repetitive practice in making the many unique figures. There is additional repetitive expression in the multiplicities of figures, too. Herein perhaps resides the spell-like quality of ritual in her oeuvre.
The tribal and shamanic is discernible in the artist's total body of work. Sojourner’s past works, shown below, are photographic works documenting performance-style happenings. These contain references from more recent art history. These images were available through the gallery website and in the artist's own personal website. I was reminded of Marina Abromovic’s performances and repetitive actions, and her many nods to the archetypal in her images. I also though of Joseph Beuys' work, such as “I like America and America Likes Me” of 1974 in which he called forth the artist-shaman for the art world’s regard and contemplation. His interactive performance with a live coyote in a gallery, had Beuys wrapped in felt, with his artist-shaman hat and cane for his only guidance and protection. Beuys is a preeminent father of the artist shamanic movement of this era, leading many other artists on to this style of artmaking.

The artist as a shamanic personality, who lives in a mental state above regular or normal society, is a concept younger artists may be returning to in the current scene. It is certainly revealed in Abromovic's work, who has taught fine art at NYU. During one of her tenures there, she had students fasting and undergoing a rigorous routine in order to cleanse themselves before making art. This is a practice that is very similar to elder shaman's initiations of young potential candidates of days long gone by.

Joseph Beuys performance "I Love America and America Loves Me" 1974

Energy Blanket – Marina Abromovic - above 2010

Tribal patterns, from Native American to African origins, are erupting across the art world and used by artists in all kinds of work. It is everywhere at the moment from the fashion world to the art world. Parsons' work reminded me of the work of another Canadian artist. Amie Cunningham (b. 1979) uses echoes of artifacts from earlier cultures in her works made in the mid 2000's. She has emerged in a second artistic wave as a fashion designer with a growing following and attention to her company Thief and Bandit. The questions about youth tribalism - creating a new culture of insular meanings to give one's life purpose - these ideas have been explored by other writers. Are our generations looking back to past ages to find those rich signifiers that we no longer find in our world - outside popular culture? Is it significant that these themes continue to emerge, as if many new artists have a similar echo of longing for a tribe of one's own?
Love This Land 2010 - Amie Cunningham
Forever Hand Amie Cunningham 2010

Hoichi Meets His Maker 2003 Amie Cunningham

The Sacred Hearth 2006 Amie Cunningham

Headdress 2004 Amie Cunningham

Thirteenth Century Christian Relic 2005 Amie Cunningham

Cunningham's work uses tribal references along with many other images from past epochs - pulling images from a vast plane of reference. In a digital age, where images of everything are readily available at a moment's click, artists can and do see and use everything they absorb. With Cunningham, one feels she respects the traditions she uses, while engaging them and talking in a dialogue with them. Then she intensely reinvents these historical reverberations - with much of her own creative energy injected into the work - to provide the new art forms that are all her own.

Cunningham's touch and regard for the cultures she references feels more reverential, primitive and primal, than Parsons'. In Parsons' work, one feels she may be expressing a more personal narrative, and is using these ideas as a stand-in to help her explore them. Parson's touch is light and airy, almost dreamy. Past histories ebb and flow in her work. In Cunningham's work, one feels the artist is utilizing a variety of images, at first it seems almost indiscriminately, but then you see she is learning, working, incorporating older historical techniques and the nuances of various cultures as she includes them in her body of work. A good example of this is her utilization of wood carving, or how she weaves multicolored threads together to echo Native American patterns, or prints ancient patterns onto the fabrics of her new fashion inspirations.

As young hipsters, appropriation pulls one to the edge. When using ancient references to new effect - it helps to truly grasp the insights they contain. Or for artists to take more of a position on the appropriated themes replayed in new ways.

When asked about Parsons' influences in an email correspondence with the reviewer, the artist said that the work comes from more current influences and sounds – the wall piece titled “To Drown a Rose” is from a recent band's song lyrics. In her words, “To drown a rose, is a lot of different things. It is the title of a Death in June song, To drown a rose …it is more sonic that I draw and relate to.” I listened to the song and couldn’t find a connection to the work on the walls, showing that art can emerge from anywhere for each individual artist-seeker.
Previous work by Sojourner Truth Parsons

Parsons’ work, whether the artist acknowledges it or not, is tapping into a much deeper cultural resonance than a band song lyric can truly encompass. Though seemingly a young artist, her new installation is full with references - from the prehistoric paintings at Lescaux to the work of performance artists of the 60s and 70s. I am the first to acknowledge that art history can be a terrible mantle to wear as a younger artist. But, while I respect the idea of individuation, I also think the ideas inherent in this artists work would benefit from acknowledging the many artists who have walked the tiring miles across centuries of human history prior to Parson’s personal exploration. It is worth considering. It remains unclear if Parsons' ambiguity about the histories and the contents of her work is due to a lack of knowledge about the cultural references she utilizes frequently in the works, or if it is the artist's way to disown history - trying to start from a more clear playing field.

In this same sense, Parsons' work is insular, it seems to talk in a language to itself on the walls…perhaps this is similar to a new human history being created by current artists that taps into the ancient and the old, while transferring upon it new and meaningful ideas of one's own personal repertoire. Perhaps it is society’s lack of formal structures now, our loss of religion, or any communal purpose that provides the earth for these kinds of youthful meaning makers to grow in the art world today. It seems quite likely. Joseph Campbell said once, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” Parson’s artwork, her creations seem to be her own personal dreams that also are tapping into the deep well of human history, referencing shamanic and ancient representations of our shared history.

number of works created by this young artist with the ideas inherent in the art make this new offering compelling. There are great ideas in this fresh new work. Even without seeing perhaps the depths of contextualization one may crave when looking at the work, perhaps an artist needs to be free to reinvent history for themselves. So, dream on Soujourner Truth Parsons, and bring us more of your personal myth.

Prior Work by Sojourner Truth Parsons

Bruce Wilhelm’s work, in contrast to Parson’s delicate paper works, resonates across the gallery like an action sci-fi movie compared to a Jane Campion film. The artist describes his work as being “fueled by stoner thought experiments,” so the artist can “make it to the megaliths of Mars”. On first glance, this artist appeared to potentially sit quite easily alongside the past decades of vogue “Bad Boy” painters in the way the work - paintings, collages, and small sculptural works - is constructed with a seemingly half finished painting style and a deliberate dissonance of color and form. Yet there is interesting, even delicate detail in the work, and a deeper vision and nuance than this "guy’s guy" artwork at first reveals to the viewer. In the end, the work became less insistent and more nerd-lovable.

“Airlock” is the artist’s latest series of paintings, mixed media, and sculptural reflections on human interest in space exploration, which the artist notes is related to Carl Sagan’s "Cosmos", and Schopenhauer's philosophy. The recent body of work shown at Mulherin + Pollard seems to be a departure from his past art, which was less gritty, and more lyrical. The past works contained figures, forests and wildlife. His animation here seems to be a kind of bridge between the old and new work.

The ideas the artist is inspired by are bigger than a breadbox. He notes in the gallery description/bio that he is attempting to describe man’s innate obscurity in the universe and the fragments of “star stuff” inherent in each of us, to quote Sagan. He seems to talk of the endless possibilities in viewing the macro- to micro-cosm of our world and Schopenhauer’s "Black Box" theory of individual knowledge of the self, versus our inner will. These ideas are found obliquely represented in the actual artworks.

Large orange paintings refer to Martian landscapes, and contain semi-abstracted NASA style Mars landers with flattened, disconnected panels that disintegrate into patterns. The landers are set against valleys of the planet recreated from actual NASA images, or a reconstructed version of the planet by artist, as it is hard to tell. These wall works are contrasted with the other modes of artistic works- of a floor sculpture that recycles the zig zag elements of Mars spcae craft solar reflectors, as well there is a leaning plexi image of a semi-abstracted moon scape with blue and black missing or painted over sections. There is also a rock with a hap hazard PCP pipe constructed ring about its widest part.

The Mars-centric works were more striking after my initial resistance. Taking images from NASA, the artist collages together images of the landscape of Mars. He reflects in the Mars-scape works the way that all of us - humanity as a group - are witnessing these space advancements as a collective species. We only see the the broader Mars-scape through tiny pasted together images that NASA is allowing us to see. Wilhelm then adds his own efforts on these works, to a bright, somewhat trippy effect. There is a boundary here between individual imagination set against the current era’s space exploration in the rest of the painting, perhaps a backdrop to the landers as a figure relates to the ground. The artist takes the historic moment and makes it his own.

On seeing them, the bluer “star pieces,” I liked more than the other works, due to the more gentle expressions and quality of the concepts. One piece in particular escapes the more hard-wired execution and “sci-fi” dense content of the rest of the work. The work, titled “The Interconnectedness ….. [of things]….” is a simple work that combines images of galaxies, blank board with tiny specs of its materiality exposed, and numbers spiraling outward. Simple yet effective, I did feel a moment of the artist’s depiction of the oneness between art and man and universe. The rest of the work is more of his deconstructive approach to painting with semi-abstraction – bearing wide sashes of paint across his “pizza boxes” and collaged elements. The aspects of green give a terrain of earth in contrast to starry skies. Crossing dark and pale lines provides a relationship to architecture, or quilts, or perhaps a "blanket" of sky above us.

The photos of stars are criss-crossed with the abstracted artists’ brushstrokes, akin to the way the artist blocks out pieces of the historic Marsian landscapes with repeated black squares, and creates his own landing craft in paint. In a sense, the work as a whole, in context of the statement by the artist, provides a window into one man’s view of the recent extra-terrestrial explorations of our kind. As the artist uses his paint brush to strike the star photos, and cuts out photos of the 'science fiction = reality' of today’s world, the artist becomes akin to god or perhaps the unseen galactic forces of dark matter, pulling and pushing the cosmos apart and together. The work asks us to pause and contemplate our part of the world, find our small planet on a small solar system at an edge of a smaller even more unimportant galaxy- so very far, far away.

Above, "The Interconnectedness ....[of things]...."

Above, actual Mars-scape photo courtesy of NASA


minerva x said…
Thought provoking commentary. Are we as a tribe dreaming of Mars?

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